Somehow, Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine article entitled “The Sunniest Climate Change Story You’ve Ever Read” left me feeling pretty dark. I knew why I was angry at Chait’s blatantly ahistorical article that attempted to erase the climate movement from the struggle against climate change. He was devaluing the people who have actually been fighting to stop climate change in order to make his point that we should all relax because capitalists and Democratic Party politicians have it all under control.
Chait’s timeline is that in 2010 Obama “tried to pass a cap-and-trade law that would bring the U.S. into compliance with the reductions it had pledged in Copenhagen.” When that failed, “environmentalists sank into despair — where many of them have stayed slumped ever since, having decided the battle is lost.”
Never mind that the cap and trade bill had no connection to the Copenhagen goal of no more than 2 degrees Celsius, but rather was a corporate welfare bill that would have had little or no impact on climate. The whole notion that the cap and trade bill was in response to Copenhagen commitments, when the bill actually passed the House of Representative six months before Copenhagen, reveals that Chait was not paying attention.
Most importantly, Chait’s assertion that “environmentalists” gave up after 2010 is insane. The very fact that he still thinks the activists fighting climate change are “environmentalists” indicates that he is completely oblivious of the actual climate justice movement, which has been consistently growing in scale, diversity and aggression since 2010. That growth was on display a year ago when 400,000 people marched through New York City. The 200 coal plant closures which Chait celebrates as progress did not magically shut down because of the invisible hand of the market or because of Obama’s yet-to-be-implemented Clean Power Plan. Every single one of them was shut down under pressure from local, frontline activists supported by a national movement. That same movement of interconnected, grassroots communities of resistance have fought off countless new power plants, pipelines, coal and gas export facilities, fracking and other new fossil fuel projects over the past five years.
(This is what 400,000 activists slumped in despair looks like.)
In fact, much of that resistance has fought the fossil fuel expansion policies of President Obama, who Chait gives most of the credit for the shift away from fossil fuels. Just this summer, the Pacific Northwest has mounted fierce resistance to Shell’s Arctic drilling that was green-lighted by the Obama administration. That region had already witnessed years of activism against the opening of the Powder River Basin to coal development, a unilateral move by President Obama that will release far more carbon than the Clean Power Plan will cut. After Obama vastly expanded offshore oil drilling in 2010, a move regarded as undermining the efforts of Senate Democrats to pass a climate bill, Gulf Coast activists fought for years to hold BP accountable for its despair inducing crime in the gulf.
And not even a willfully blind neoliberal like Chait could have possibly missed the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. The one where in 2011, rather than being slumped in despair, over 1200 activists were arrested outside the White House trying to wake up the President, who at that point religiously avoided even talking about climate change. The following year, grassroots activists with the Tar Sands Blockade didn’t “sink” into despair but rose into trees to blockade the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama “fast-tracked” while celebrating the massive expansion of oil and gas drilling and infrastructure under his administration. Perhaps most critically and most underrated, when Obama began his reelection campaign in the fall of 2011, young activists with 350.org disrupted every single campaign event to demand he stop Keystone XL. They sent the message that unless he stepped up his game on climate change, they would literally stand in the way of his election. If we’re looking for why the politics of climate change are beginning to turn around, we should start with that movement.
That’s why if Chait actually believed his narrative about a savior Obama and his corporate allies saving the climate in the face of activist apathy, he would indeed be insane. But I doubt he does believe it. His revisionist history is simply necessary to support his neoliberal position that the technocrats running the world are doing a good job, so the rest of us can relax. Jonathan Chait claims to be dispensing optimism and hope when what he is really selling is a dangerous brand of complacency.
The crux of Chait’s deception about the disappearance of climate activism is the claim that despair is paralyzing. In order to erase the climate movement of the past five years, his narrative is that once it became clear that it was too late to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change, those who acknowledged that reality plunged into despair and depression and have been stuck in a paralyzed fatalism ever since. He asserts that despair “renders us passive bystanders to history and, by hiding our agency, distorts our vision of the world.” He even lists Dr. James Hansen and Dale Jamieson among his examples of people who “seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds.” Even though Chait apparently didn’t read past the harsh subtitle of Jamieson’s book to his calls for continued action, it stands to reason that someone who is still writing books about climate change has not completely given up. And it is obviously absurd and disingenuous to imply that James Hansen, who has consistently escalated his struggle against climate change for the past 30 years, has somehow given up.
The thing is, myself and most of the people I know who are most committed to fighting climate change, from James Hansen and Bill McKibben to the college students blockading pipelines, have experienced despair and depression. And we are still fighting for climate justice. We have looked at our desperate situation and despaired. Many of us grieve on a regular basis. And yet we continue to struggle to defend the world we love. Chait rightly notes that the complexity of the climate crisis defies simplistic black and white thinking. But the easy dualism between optimism and pessimism displayed by Chait and many others is perhaps the most important kind of simplistic thinking that is found lacking in response to the climate crisis.
The utilitarian notion that people have to expect a positive outcome from their actions in order to act seems obvious. That notion might be obvious, but I believe it is also wrong. I don’t believe optimism is the only form of hope. In fact, I don’t even think it is a particularly strong form of hope. Optimism has a fickle dependency on shifting situations and often requires the kind of mental gymnastics displayed by Chait. The hope of many of the post-despair climate activists I know is grounded in something deeper and more resilient. Our hope is grounded in our love for the people and planet around us. The only way to be faithful to that love is to keep fighting for it, which we have been doing whether Jonathan Chait was paying attention or not.